Thinking Aloud: Ball Back in Israel’s Court

Apr. 26, 2014 by Darius 

Yesterday, I shared some of Dr. Reza Marashi’s remarks about US-Iran relations (see  One of the things he mentioned that I did not include yesterday was the recent brouhaha over Iran’s appointment of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Iran’s representative the United Nations.  According to Dr. Marashi, Aboutalebi’s appointment was designed as a conciliatory gesture: Aboutalebi had extensive experience as a diplomat in several European countries, including as Iranian ambassador to the European Union, and his politics are not even moderate but downright progressive by Iranian standards.  He seemed the perfect choice for the UN post.  But he played a very minor role as translator during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis.  The US, unable to see past that, deemed Aboutalebi unwelcome in the US, and, in a rare show of unity, the US Congress quickly passed a law that President Obama signed to deny him a visa.  The reason I mention this is because it is a good example of long-time adversaries misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other’s gestures.

Earlier this week, Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government.  Israel promptly walked out of peace negotiations on the grounds that Hamas is a terrorist organization.  Today, though, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced the unity government, *including Hamas*, would fully abide by previous Palestinian commitments, including recognizing Israel.

Hamas reiterated that it itself did not recognize Israel.  But there are no members of Hamas in the new unity government: it will be filled with nonaligned technocrats.  And frankly, it is still somewhat astonishing (even if long overdue) that Hamas took the political chance of agreeing to the next closest thing to recognition, a move that is sure to be unpopular with its base.

Like the case of Aboutalebi, Iran’s choice for the UN post, the announcement of the Palestinian unity government may have been designed to assuage, not provoke, Israeli and American concerns.  The Israelis have long complained that Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority did not represent all Palestinians and that Israel has no real partner on the other side of the negotiating table.  This unity government has a much more solid claim to be just that.  Today’s explicit announcement that the Palestinian unity government will recognize Israel puts the ball squarely back in Israel’s court.

Israel can’t have its cake and eat it too.  It can’t claim that it cannot negotiate because the group on the other side of the table doesn’t represent all of Palestine and then refuse to negotiate with a group that does represent all of Palestine.

Today’s announcement that a Palestinian unity government would recognize Israel should make clear to Israel, the US, and the rest of the world that this unity government is intended as an opportunity to resolve a stumbling block in the negotiations, not as a poke in the eye.  Israel and the West (not to mention the Palestinians) would be well served to take it seriously.

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